By Thomas Gerbasi
The old adage is that revenge is a dish best served cold. Not in boxing. When a fighter is the victim of a wrongdoing, either real or imagined, there is nothing businesslike about the act of getting even. It’s all personal, no matter how gentlemanly things may play out beforehand.
Take Joseph Agbeko for example. Even after taking repeated low blows from Abner Mares in their first bantamweight title fight in August while referee Russell Mora stood idly by, the Ghana native only had this to say when asked why he didn’t fire back to a) get the referee’s attention or b) get Mares to stop: “I didn’t retaliate against him because I had to be professional and I have to obey the rules of the sport.”
That’s a classy tact to take, but don’t expect Agbeko to stand idly by if shots start straying low again. Not a second time.
Miguel Cotto has been less courteous to Antonio Margarito following their 2008 bout, one that the junior middleweight champion from Puerto Rico believes was tainted by the same illegal hand wraps confiscated from Margarito’s dressing room before a fight with Shane Mosley six months later. Cotto has even gone as far as to label the Mexican a “criminal,” even with no proof of any wrongdoing.
Both Agbeko and Cotto get rematches this Saturday night, one in California, the other in New York. It’s a bi-coastal quest to get a little get back, and while Agbeko has only had to wait four months to sing his redemption song, Cotto has had three long years of anticipation to attempt to avenge his first pro loss. The wait isn’t what’s important though; it’s what follows that wait which means everything.
That feeling is one that no one but a fighter would understand. The result of a particular fight is almost always seen in black and white terms – someone wins, someone loses. Yet when there are shades of gray involved, it makes for good copy for a while, but eventually just becomes a footnote in history, if that. Not for the fighter though. A particular loss can hurt financially in the short term, physically in the long term, and emotionally forever, especially if the loss is a controversial one.
No one knows that better than former junior welterweight champion Paulie Malignaggi, whose August 2009 decision loss to Juan Diaz was one of the most disputed verdicts of the year.
“I think it’s really important psychologically for somebody to get back a controversial loss,” said Malignaggi. “If you don’t get that chance, you’ll always have that something in your head, saying ‘Man, I know I can beat this guy, the situation just has to be right, and the next time it will be, even though the first time it wasn’t.’ There are some moments when you just know you have to do it - you have to see that guy again and take care of business. I think Cotto-Margarito is definitely a perfect example of that with all the controversy with the hand wraps of Margarito. I think psychologically, if a fighter doesn’t get back at that guy, I don’t want to say he’s gonna have something missing, but he’ll definitely have that feeling of being unfulfilled, regardless of what he accomplishes.”
And the key here is not just a fighter losing a bout to someone who was the better man that night. What makes things worse for fighters like Agbeko, Cotto, and Malignaggi is that they can easily look at outside forces as being the culprit in their defeat. For Agbeko it was Mora, for Cotto alleged illegal hand wraps, and Malignaggi three judges. The way some see it though, these are all cases of sour grapes.
Agbeko was wearing a cup, wasn’t he?
Cotto has no proof of wrongdoing, so why is he complaining about simply being worn down and being stopped by Margarito?
Malignaggi boxed all night, so how could he expect to deserve a decision against Diaz, who moved forward for 12 rounds?
“People will always be opinionated,” said Malignaggi. “Even after my first fight with Diaz, they said ‘ah, if there’s a rematch, Diaz will just beat him again, maybe even worse because this time he won’t underestimate him.’ It was the same with Agbeko-Mares, or with Cotto they say ‘oh, he might be finished.’ And there will always be those people that, even though you were done wrong, they don’t want to believe you’re better than the guy, and that drives you crazy and I couldn’t get over that. From a competitor’s point of view, to take that wrong and make it a right is vital to a fighter’s psychological advancement.”
Malignaggi was one of the lucky ones, at least this time. He not only got his immediate rematch with Diaz four months later, but he got it on neutral turf in Chicago (unlike the first bout, which was in Diaz’ hometown of Houston, Texas), and he won the decision he and so many others believed he should have gotten in the first bout.
“My situation with Diaz, I just wanted a fair shake,” he said. “I didn’t want any advantages. I felt like they gave every advantage to Diaz, including the judges, and I just wanted a fair fight between me and him and I knew I would show I was better. Those two fights – Agbeko-Mares and Cotto-Margarito – under different circumstances you might have a different winner.”
Or you might not. Mares and Margarito are no slouches in the ring, and neither are the types to look to hide behind inept refereeing or judging. So it’s conceivable that they could fight Agbeko and Cotto a hundred times and win every one. But you won’t convince either Agbeko or Cotto of that fact. As fighters, it’s hard to accept any defeat, let alone one with a question mark above it, so until they get an opportunity to meet their tormentor again, there will be no closure. Or if there is, it’s only after realizing that when it’s all said and done, one fight doesn’t always define a career.
Malignaggi realized that after finally giving up the ghost on his quest for a rematch with Cotto, the first man to issue him a pro defeat back in 2006 in the same building the Puerto Rican will fight Margarito in on Saturday. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but in order to move on to win a world championship and keep his career going, he had to let this quest for revenge die.
“After I lost that fight (to Cotto), I was so consumed with the fact that I could be one of the best fighters in the world, and that to do that I just had to beat this guy,” said Malignaggi. “But as time went on, you start seeing that there are so many things that are out of your control in this business. You think you’re just gonna go in there and fight and everything’s gonna be taken care of, but there are so many land mines you’ve got to dodge that at a certain point, you let it go.”